An Early Glimpse of Philadelphia’s Black Entrepreneurs

Image of the Week: A painting of African-American woodcutters captures a vital part of the city’s life at a time when success wasn’t just a dream.

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Black Sawyers Working in Front of the Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, circa 1811-13, attributed to John Lewis Krimmel. Watercolor, 9 1/8 by 6 3/4 inches.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Before a fixed symbol of the financial might of early Philadelphia, three black woodcutters, or sawyers, labor at a makeshift workplace. In this modestly sized scene, the artist has captured a fleeting, mundane incident with a convincing sense of immediacy.

In the background, fronting South Second Street, stands the imposing facade of the Bank of Pennsylvania. Designed by the English-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1798, the Greek Revival building immediately became one of the major architectural landmarks of post-Revolutionary Philadelphia. The financial institution served as a major driver of commerce in the city until its collapse during the financial panic of 1857. Regrettably, the impressive building was torn down in the next decade after briefly serving as a prison.

In the bottom left foreground lies a pile of discarded timbers and logs, apparently detritus left over from a building project. Two of the men busily cut logs from the pile with their frame saws. The other loads a cut piece onto a wagon. The men seem surprised by the arrival of a black woman wearing a tall, West Indian head wrap and holding a white baby. Each holds a small yellow peach.

The woman is apparently the nurse for a well-to-do white family, a domestic duty often performed by blacks at the time. The woman’s upraised arm and animated facial expression have engaged the attention of the men, who turn from their work to look at her. Perhaps one of them is her husband, but in any case her presence adds a lively note to the work they perform.

This remarkable scene of life on the streets of Philadelphia was long attributed to Pavel Petrovich Svinin, the secretary to the Russian consul general, who lived in the city between 1811 and 1813. The scene of sawyers at work is one of several watercolor views painted in the same format. It formed part of an album of more than 50 sheets assembled by Svinin. The style of this group of watercolors, however, resembles more closely the work of the German-born John Lewis Krimmel, another European immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia in 1809. The artist carefully laid successive watercolor washes, one over the other, to create subtle effects of color and light. By comparison, Svinin’s handling of color is applied more directly, and his treatment of figures is looser.

Most of Krimmel’s watercolors depict Philadelphia street life in a similar vein. All are observed within the city center between Independence Hall and Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River. At least two other scenes depict the interaction between working-class blacks and middle-class whites strolling around the city at their leisure. The works portray prominent Philadelphia institutions, producing the effect of an itinerary of the city’s architectural highlights viewed through the scrim of everyday life. One shows a well-dressed white couple striking up a conversation with black chimney sweeps across from Christ Church. Another, set before the Chestnut Street Theatre, shows a black man shucking oysters at a stand patronized by three fashionably dressed white male customers.

Krimmel is generally recognized as America’s first significant painter of genre art, or scenes of ordinary life. With only rudimentary training as a portrait painter, he soon turned to the life of the city itself for his inspiration. The recent restoration to him of these vignettes of street life in Philadelphia affords a fresh assessment of his oeuvre. In those works long attributed to him, the presentation of life in the city is more panoramic and includes the entire spectrum of Philadelphia’s population, brought together on festive occasions. In these watercolors, on the other hand, the focus is on a single activity and involves just a few participants.

It seems significant that the unjaundiced depiction of blacks as a normal part of the urban environment would characterize the work of an immigrant artist. To an observant eye new to the nation’s shores, the intricate panoply of city life must have appeared seamless in its variety and intrinsic value. It is interesting to note that fellow immigrant Latrobe, architect of the bank behind the sawyers, himself recorded impressions of life in America with the same alacrity as Krimmel and Svinin, choosing subjects that might have appeared irrelevant or even unseemly to American eyes.

Krimmel’s engaging watercolor views of the black population of Philadelphia focus on the entrepreneurial spirit of the poorer classes. Far from serving as merely picturesque foils for the structures behind them, these figures represent a very real part of black life in the city during an extremely important period in its history. In the census of 1810, the approximate date of the watercolors, free black citizens made up nearly 10 percent of the city’s population, the greatest share they would reach during the 19th century.